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It is an open secret that university Hillel chapters often find themselves on the side of campus constituencies that support the agenda of Israel’s most vicious enemies. One particularly appalling example of this alliance comes to us from the University of California, Irvine (UCI), whose Hillel chapter has formed an incestuous association with the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI), a controversial student program that emulates the model of the terrorist front group, the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), and indeed, even works with ISM leadership. In its most scandalous episode yet, the OTI has been exposed for arranging a meeting between students and a prominent leader of the genocidal terrorist organization Hamas. UCI Hillel’s on-going alliance with such an organization and its record of deceit demand that drastic measures be taken.
Controversy with UCI Hillel erupted in November 2010 when the organization’s president promoted a speaking event featuring a Palestinian activist named George Rishmawi. The event was arranged under the auspices of the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI), but was promoted over Facebook by Hillel leadership. Importantly, the original Facebook flier described Rishmawi as the “cofounder [of] the International Solidarity Movement” (ISM) and the “head of [the] Siraj Center for Holy Land Studies.” This is crucial to note, as the significance of Rishmawi’s affiliation with the ISM cannot be overstated. The ISM is a viciously anti-Israel organization that endorses Palestinian terrorism and is infamous for its abetment of terrorist operations in Israel through its facade of “nonviolent” activism. The group specializes in propagandizing Westerners, whom it uses as human shields to provide cover for terrorists.
Needless to say, when the Orange County Jewish community was alerted to the event, many were outraged. The Orange County Independent Task Force on Anti-Semitism publicized the event on its website, but shortly thereafter, the event information, including biographical information on Rishmawi, had changed. Rishmawi was described as the “Coordinator for Siraj, Center For Holy Land Studies” and a “former member of the International Solidarity Movement” (emphasis added). Hillel UCI President Matan Lurey explained on the event’s page that there are, in fact, two George Rishmawis, and that there had been confusion about which one had been invited by OTI. Defenders of the talk claimed that it was George S. Rishmawi who was invited to speak, not George N. Rishmawi, a relative and colleague of the former, and notorious cofounder of the ISM.
Unfortunately, the controversy only escalated from there, much of which, is chronicled at www.ha-Emet.com (Hebrew for “the truth”), a community response to events exposed in November. Numerous members of the Jewish community, led by Dee Sterling, were disturbed by the Rishmawi talk and dispatched a letter to Jordan Fruchtman, executive director of Orange County Hillel (which oversees the UCI Hillel). The letter was also sent to Shalom Elcott of the Jewish Federation of Orange County (JFOC) and Jay Feldman, coordinator of the JFOC’s Rose Project, which funds the OTI. More broadly, the letter objected to Hillel and the federation’s support for the OTI, which was being increasingly exposed for the radically anti-Israel student indoctrination program that it is. The letter read, in part:
“It is particularly disturbing that the UCI Hillel, under the guidance of Hillel Director Jordan Fruchtman has also contributed to supporting the OTI. A former Hillel Israel Fellow participated in an OTI trip and the current student leader of Hillel is actively promoting the event this coming Monday with George Rishmawi….We also ask Jordan Fruchtman how Hillel which, ‘…provides opportunities for Jewish students to explore and celebrate their Jewish identity…’ can reconcile this noble work with the history and actions of the ISM.”
The response from the recipients of this letter, however, was truly disgraceful. With respect to Fruchtman in particular, rather than accept responsibility for the egregious lack of judgement, Fruchtman disseminated a letter to the Orange County Jewish community personally attacking Sterling, claiming that she was maliciously spreading untruths and was mistaken about which Rishmawi was speaking. “Hillel does not support George N. Rishmawi or ISM, the organization with which he is affiliated,” Fruchtman said. “As a matter of principle, the values of ISM are in direct conflict with Hillel’s values and Hillel’s stance on Israel…[T]he person that has been invited by the Olive Tree Initiative to speak at UCI on November 22, 2010, is a different George Rishmawi, whose full name is George S. Rishmawi[.]” Fruchtman advised others to ignore Sterling’s “reprehensible” statement.
Beyond the extreme lack of decorum in terms of the letter’s personal attack against an active, upstanding member of the Irvine Jewish community (for the crime of voicing her objections to a malicious anti-Israel activist being brought on campus), the letter sent by Fruchtman was seriously factually challenged. First, it is incontrovertible that an event featuring the “cofounder of the ISM” had been promoted by Hillel leadership. In fact, the Simon Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles issued a similar objection to the JFOC based on the same information. The alleged confusion was only “clarified” when public criticism was made of Hillel publicizing the event in the first place.
Secondly, George S. Rishmawi (the “good one”) also has a close relationship with the ISM. His biography at the Siraj Center also describes him as the “cofounder” of the ISM. Moreover, although Fruchtman in his letter claimed that George S. “was no longer involved” with the group, it is not as if organizations like the ISM offer membership cards or any other formal recognition of association. What it means to say that one has “cut ties” or dropped affiliation with the group is extremely ambiguous and practically impossible to verify.
But in fact, such verification is not even necessary. OTI itineraries from 2008-2010 identify two George Rishmawis giving talks and tours to students on OTI trips to Israel and the disputed territories (including Hillel members). These two individuals are clearly differentiated on the 2008, 2009, and 2010 itineraries as “George S. Rishmawi (Siraj Center)” and “George Rishmawi (cofounder ISM).” Clearly, both Rishmawis are involved in the program, unless, for some strange reason, George S. Rishmawi — the “good” ISM cofounder according to UCI Hillel — was identified two different ways on the same itinerary.
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